Blogs & Comment

In the Uber vs. taxi industry mud-slinging, everyone looks dirty

A bloated, outdated bureaucracy or a buck-passing startup frathouse? There’s really no one worth rooting for

Uber app displaying on a smartphone

(Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty)

After watching Uber and the city of Toronto square off in court this week about the company’s right to operate here, it’s hard to know who to root for.

On the one side is an American technology company with a history of questionable business practices, and on the other is an outdated bureaucracy that does much to keep transportation costs high in the city.

There’s no clear good guy in this Uber versus Toronto fight.

Toronto city lawyers are arguing for an injunction that would shut Uber down, at least until it receives the necessary approvals to operate as a taxi company. The company, they say, is a taxi service through and through, yet it isn’t licensed or insured as one, which is a hazard to public safety.

San Francisco–based Uber has been arguing that it merely supplies the app that connects drivers to passengers. It’s just a technology company, not a taxi provider, so no license or insurance is necessary.

It’s the same argument the company has made wherever it has come into conflict with authorities, and that’s a lot of places, from New Delhi to New York to Paris. Still, Uber did finally apply for a taxi license in Toronto last month.

In two days of hearings this week, Justice Sean Dunphy of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice repeatedly questioned why Uber versus Toronto was in court. “You could draft a regulation,” he told the city’s lawyer. “You could regulate the entire business for anyone going anywhere in the City of Toronto for money.”

Toronto’s taxi system is, as in many cities, in desperate need of reform. One of the key issues is plate holders akin to feudal lords, who own many of the precious few taxi licenses but never actually drive the cars themselves. They instead rent the licenses out to drivers through a host of middlemen.

The practice has drawn the ire of Toronto Mayor John Tory, who has said they “suck money from people who are trying to earn a living (while adding) no value to the industry whatsoever.”

It’s just one of the problems contributing to the city having some of the highest taxi rates in the world. Toronto cabs have been found to be more expensive than their counterparts in New York, Paris and Los Angeles.

Uber has been a welcome relief in that sense, not just for its easy-to-use app, but also for its Uber X service, which lets anyone turn their car into a taxi-like service without the taxi-like rates.

If only the company didn’t have such a horrendous track record behind the scenes. Last year alone saw Uber deal with controversies such as price increases during crisis situationsovert sexism, executives suggesting smearing unfriendly journalists and employees snooping on customer data.

As I said last year, Uber has at times seemed like a company run by irresponsible frat boys. The company has taken steps to rehabilitate its image, but some of these efforts—such as a puppy delivery service and other stunts—have been so over-the-top as to seem laughably desperate.

There’s no doubt the transportation systems in Toronto and many other cities around the world are in dire need of overhauls. It’s just too bad that Uber is somehow the company that’s forcing it.